Marietta approves soccer deal

There was minimal push back Wednesday against Marietta signing a deal with Arthur Blank to provide the land for his professional soccer team’s planned practice facility, but not nearly enough to get in the way of the city council unanimously approving a preliminary agreement that settles most of the major contractual issues.

The Marietta site, on Franklin Road where there is a major revitalization effort happening, came into play when Atlanta United FC’s deal with DeKalb County fell apart last week because of contaminated soil at that site.

“Our dirt was better than their dirt,” Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin told residents during an hour-long town hall gathering before the council meeting.

The biggest roadblock came in the form of a last-minute addition to the Memorandum of Understanding, saying the team would use “its best efforts” to invest a minimum of $40 million in the development — which includes its team headquarters, training facility and six lighted practice fields. The team will play its games in the Falcons new downtown stadium.

City Attorney Doug Haynie told council under questioning that the team’s attorneys “assured me they would not sign the agreement” if the contract was binding on the minimum investment.

When asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution why the team wouldn’t agree to an iron-clad minimum, Haynie responded: “What if there’s an earthquake tomorrow, or a labor strike? We have every confidence they will invest at least that much money.”

Tumlin said team officials have said the investment will be about $58 million. Councilman Stuart Fleming said he is convinced the team will build a great development because it’s in the best interest of the team.

“If they come in at $39 million, I’m not really worried about that,” Fleming said.

Most of the questions at the town hall revolved around whether there was an economic impact study performed (no); whether the team will pay personal property taxes (after 10 years); and whether the development was in keeping with the promise of the $68 million bond referendum passed in 2013 (yes, Tumlin said, it is helping revitalize the troubled area).

William Perry, president of the Georgia Watchdogs nonprofit, said he came to the meeting because it is another public investment in professional sports happening at “jet speed.” The council is scheduled to vote on a final lease in December.

“Do citizens want it?” Perry said. “They have no argument about how it will benefit the city except speculation.”

Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United, said the facility will be home to their professional team and their youth league, which is intended to develop the best players in the region. There will not be a stadium, as was the plan in DeKalb, but there will be a “show” field that will host youth league games and traveling teams from around the world.

“It’s important for us that we have our academy players … because we need to create home-grown players,” Eales said.

Here is the entire Q&A with Atlanta United FC President Darren Eales:

Compare this site compared to DeKalb?

A: The plan here in Marietta is to have six fields and it’s going to be for our first team and our academy. With the soccer team, we’ll obviously have our first team training here when we begin playing in March 2017. But it’s also important for us that we have our academy players – that’s the under 12s, under 13s, under 14s, under 16s and under 18 teams – because we need to create home-grown players to play on Atlanta’s first team. So six fields for us gives us that future room we need to have those teams. The academy seems to be growing and I think at some stage we’re going to go to under 15, under 17 and even junior-level under 10s.

Do plans for your headquarters remain essentially the same as the DeKalb plan?

A: Pretty similar, although with the layout we have in Marietta we can be a little bit more flexible in the design. So the way DeKalb was there was a road that we had to run against. And now we have a bit more flexibility in terms of the design.

Why no stadium here?

A: The stadium was much more something that DeKalb were interested in, in terms of having high school games, graduations and things like that. For us it wasn’t necessary. We’ll have a show pitch at our new training ground, and that’s the place where if your first team is playing at the new stadium against Barcelona or Manchester United and when the national teams come like Mexico and the USA, the plan would be that they would train at our facility. So we want to have one pitch that’s a bit more of a show pitch that is something we can play some behind-closed-door games in.

What’s a show pitch?

A: You would have a scoreboard there. You would perhaps have the advertising around it. It’s just something that marks it up. And also so that’s where our academy teams will play their games. What we want to do on a weekend for the academy, they’ll be training during the week, but on the weekend it’s almost like being mini-professionals, so they get a chance to play on their show pitch and for them it’s that big game of the week. The academy is all about trying to make young players into professionals. So every little edge you can give them is an advantage.

Describe the difference in the land and why you decided to move here.

A: Well, obviously the land here we did our due diligence and there’s no problems with the land. And obviously, that was the issue we had in DeKalb, just in terms of geo-technical problems that meant it was just not feasible as a site. The site in Marietta is ready to go, so we’re excited about that. We know we’ve got a tight timeline, because we start playing in March 2017. So timing is important for us, because we are looking to basically have our facility up as soon as we can.

How will folks who live in this community be impacted by what goes on at your facility?

A: We’re really excited about the impact we can have in the community. It’s the important part of Atlanta United. We’re a new team, we’re really excited by the way Atlanta has embraced us. We’ve got over 26,000 season ticket deposits, and we’re over 16 months before we start play – we don’t have any players, we don’t have a head coach. And for us it’s important that we give back to the community. So there’s a number of levels (in which) we can do that. Our training sessions, we’re going to try and make them as open as possible, so people can drop by and watch the team in training. Compare that to England, where I came from, and it’s like Fort Knox at our training ground. We don’t want to have that. The other thing is our academy. We’re going to have lots of youngsters come train with us, and ours will be free to play. So we don’t charge money, we just want to get the best players in the area, wherever they’re from, and get them into the Atlanta first team. The other great thing about this project is because there are three fields (provided by the city) over the road, we’ve got a chance to develop some big tournaments, something we can work with Georgia Soccer … the MLS group that has academy tournaments, and we can bring big tournaments to this area. So that’s something people will be staying in the area, they’ll be staying in the hotels, so there’s all of those benefits as well. But ultimately, we’re striving to be a world-class team; this is going to be a world-class facility, and we’re going to have big teams – I mentioned it earlier, Real Madrid, Barcelona will pass through the area. And they’re going to be training in Marietta at this site.

Are you going to work on the southern accent?

A: Yeah, ya’ll.

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